by Jim Riggs
February 26, 2005
Lever Trades Were Rather Unusual
Don Lever was traded twice in his National Hockey League playing career, but with a different twist. Lever was not only traded twice, but both teams he was traded to moved to new cities!
"I folded two franchises that are back going again," Lever said with a smile before Monday night's Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner, where he was the guest speaker.
He was referring to being traded to the Atlanta Flames, who moved to Calgary. Then he was traded to the Colorado Rockies, who moved to New Jersey.
Now, after the losses of the Flames and the Rockies, Atlanta and Colorado have new teams - the Thrashers and the Avalanche.
"It was interesting," Lever said about his unique situation of being traded to two teams that moved. "That just goes to show how thin the line is with ownership, especially back then."
Long before the trades, Lever was the No. 1 draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 1972. After eight seasons with Vancouver, he was traded to the Atlanta Flames late in the 1979-80 season. But that summer, the Flames moved to Calgary.
"In Atlanta, what happened down there is that Coco-Cola wouldn't buy them, but Ted Turner was willing to buy them," Lever said. "But he wanted the building (the Omni) from the real estate developer, who was Tim Cousins, and Cousins wouldn't sell. So we ended up in Calgary."
But the Flames didn't know anything about the franchise moving until they entered the 1980 post season.
"It just came right out of the blue," said Lever, who now is an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues after holding the same position with the Buffalo Sabres for 12 years. "We didn't hear about it until the playoffs. I remember our general manager saying if we don't get by the first round (of the playoffs) there's a good chance our franchise will move."
He added, "We all got pretty nervous. He shouldn't have said anything and we would have had a better chance of winning."
The Flames didn't as they were swept in two games by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.
"Then the rumors started and I think Molson Brewery got involved and brought them to Calgary when Molson's was heavily involved in hockey at the time, which they aren't any more," he said.
It wasn't too traumatic a move for Lever, because he hadn't even settled in Atlanta.
"I was only in Atlanta a short time, I think three months," he said.
The Flames began playing in the Stampede corral in 1980-81 which seated only 7,242, compared to 15,141 at the Omni in Atlanta. But it was always packed and things remained that way when the Flames moved into the Calgary Olympic Saddledome, which seats 20,123, in 1983.
The move across the border was quite a change after playing hockey in the deep south.
"Calgary is Canada, you can't go out and make a right turn or a left turn without running face-to-face with somebody who wants to know why you did this and why you did that," Lever said. "It was a great young city, it really was."
But in 1981, Lever was back in the United States after being traded to the Colorado Rockies, who had moved to Denver after two seasons as the Kansas City Scouts.
But Lever wasn't a Rockie for long.
"Colorado had to fold, they weren't getting any people in the building," Lever said. "But they needed just a good product and it would have gone. You can see how successful it is now (with the Avalanche)."
Because of the Rockies' poor record, the fans stayed away and soon the team was looking for greener pastures.
"We knew that the franchise was in trouble when I got there, but we didn't know how severe it was because it was sold to someone from the Buffalo area, I believe his name was Gilbert (Peter Gilbert was a cable TV magnate)," he said.
"He just stopped making payments, so the league took over the team and they couldn't find a buyer in Colorado."
So during the offseason, Lever again waited to find out where his team was going to move.
"It didn't matter to me because I hadn't moved anything there, I stayed in an apartment," he said. "I had a summer home in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and I just went there and waited to find out where we were headed the next year."
And he found out he was headed to New Jersey.
"It was pretty disappointing," he said about both trades followed by a team transfer. "There's nothing you can do in situations like that. Fortunately we had a home base in Niagara Falls that we could go to."
So fortunately his many moves didn't affect his family.
The team's arrival in New Jersey attracted some fans early in its first season.
"The Devils did well (in attendance) for a while," Lever said. "We drew pretty well considering the type of team we had. That was the Mickey Mouse year, if you remember Gretzky called them the Mickey Mouse Operation."
That was after the Edmonton Oilers defeated the Devils 13-4 and Gretzky scored three goals and picked up five assists. That loss gave New Jersey a 2-18-0 record, the second-worst start in NHL history which led to Gretzky's comment. He later apologized for calling the Devils a "Mickey Mouse operation."
Lever noted, "It's just in a tough area, that building (Byrne Meadowlands Arena). They're getting a brand new building there. We actually did well early and then the crowds started dying down once the new part of it rubbed off. I actually liked the area, it was a nice franchise."
But it was a weak franchise in the standings, which finished next to last in Lever's two seasons with records of 17-49-14 and 17-56-7. So did he ever think that same team would eventually win three Stanley Cup championships?
"Not really, you wouldn't see that," said Lever, who was the Devils' captain for the team's first two seasons. "But they had some nice young players when I was there. There was Kirk Muller and (Pat) Verbeek and Kenny Daneyko, so they had some nice young players coming in. But you would never think that would happen there."
And you would never think a player would get traded and then have his new team move - twice!